Tigers open door to postseason
By By BRUCE HIXON – Sports Editor
It would have been appropriate if the T.R. Miller Tigers had been given the honor of turning off the lights at W.S. Neal Stadium.
After all, it was the Tigers who turned the lights out on the Blue Eagles' playoff hopes with their 34-22 victory Friday in the 60th annual edition of the Battle of Murder Creek.
At the same time T.R. Miller knocked W.S. Neal from the playoff field with the aid of Slocomb's 28-6 win over Dale County, the Tigers secured themselves a postseason berth. T.R. Miller will get the number two seed out of Class 3A Region 1 and the first-round home playoff game that goes with it. The Tigers (7-2 overall and 5-2 in region) finished tied for second place with Straughn, but T.R. Miller's 29-7 win over Straughn back in week two gives it the tiebreaker.
Friday's victory extended the Tigers dominance against their arch rival. T.R. Miller has won 11 straight over the Blue Eagles, 22 of 23, 25 of 27 and 33 of 36. W.S. Neal has not beaten T.R. Miller at home since 1985.
While it would be unfair to ask Tigers coach Jamie Riggs, who is 19-1 all-time against W.S. Neal counting playoff games, to rank his program's latest victory in the series, he acknowledged the importance.
W.S. Neal (4-5 overall and 3-4 in region) tried its best to wipe out a 17-point deficit it dug early in the third quarter. Twice the Blue Eagles cut the gap to five points, but each time T.R. Miller immediately answered.
One of Hathcock's worst fears headed into the game was falling behind early and the Blue Eagles did just that when T.R. Miller drove 58 yards on eight plays on its first possession of the game.
While Nykeem Barton muscled his way for 32 yards on four attempts during the possession, Justin Gomez made his lone touch of the series count the most when he dashed to his right and into the endzone. Baxley Raines' point after attempt split the uprights to give T.R. Miller a 7-0 lead with 7:10 left in the first quarter.
W.S. Neal was plagued by poor field position throughout the first half. The Blue Eagles started drives from their own 20, their own 22, their own 11 and their own 19.
While W.S. Neal was able to generate some yardage on those possessions, it was not until the last of those series when it was finally able to break through.
The Blue Eagles got a 20-yard run by Jake Bailey and a 14-yard gain by Mario Daniel. Yet the big break came when quarterback Marquis Barksdale broke loose for a 26-yard dash and the play had a personal foul penalty against T.R. Miller added to the end of the play.
The penalty took the ball all the way to the Tigers' 11-yard line. While W.S. Neal was able to get just one yard closer, it was enough for Spencer Williamson to boot a 27-yard field goal that trimmed the Tigers' cushion to 7-3 with 2:23 left in the first half.
As would be the case the entire game, T.R. Miller would quickly answer. In a scenario similar to the one that led to W.S. Neal's score, the Tigers got a 19-yard completion from Jordan Cauley to Brice Martin that got a 15-yard boost at the end due to a personal foul penalty called on the home team. That flag took the ball all the way to the W.S. Neal 27.
Justin Gomez delivered a 20-yard gain on the ensuing play although the Tigers got called for a false start penalty one play later that moved them back to the 12. That was no problem though to Briddell Jones, who covered those 12 yards with a touchdown run with only seven seconds left in the first half. Raines' PAT kick took T.R. Miller's lead to 14-3.
While the Tigers' score right before halftime was bad enough for the Blue Eagles, it was compounded when T.R. Miller began the second half with another score.
A big 64-yard completion from Cauley to Mikel Riggs set up a one-yard touchdown plunge by Nykeem Barton. Even though Raines' PAT was no good, T.R. Miller suddenly had a three-possession lead of 20-3.
It looked as if things would only go from bad to worse for W.S. Neal when T.R. Miller's Julius Harris recovered a fumble at the Blue Eagles' 30-yard line on the ensuing series.
The W.S. Neal defense held firm and stopped the Tigers on downs after just a two-yard advancement.
That defensive stop may have given some spark to the Blue Eagles' offense where they quickly went 72 yards on six plays. While Barksdale, who threw for 210 yards in the game, had a 14-yard completion to Jonathan Alexander that also included a face mask penalty on T.R. Miller and Daniel had a 23-yard run, it was an eight-yard touchdown toss from Barksdale to Jake Bailey that finished the job.
Bailey's score cut the deficit to 20-9 and stayed there when Williamson's PAT sailed wide left with 2:20 left in the period.
Another three-and-out stop by the W.S. Neal defense on the ensuing series gave the Blue Eagles' offense a chance to pull even closer.
W.S. Neal was able to capitalize on the opportunity. The big break for the Blue Eagles came when Justin Howard wrestled the ball away from a pair of T.R. Miller defenders for a 29-yard reception off a Barksdale pass on a third down and 13 situation.
That play eventually set up a four-yard touchdown pass from Barksdale to Alexander in the left corner of the endzone. Although W.S. Neal's two-point conversion attempt with a Barksdale pass fell incomplete, the Blue Eagles had pulled to within 20-15 with 8:12 left in the game.
W.S. Neal's hopes quickly got deflated when Barton busted loose for a 43-yard run one play after the ensuing kickoff. Barton's run took the ball to the Blue Eagles' 16 and six plays later Justin Gomez scored from one yard out.
There was a big moment just prior to the Gomez's touchdown. T.R. Miller fumbled the ball in its backfield and the opportunity was there for W.S. Neal to pounce on it. Instead, Harris fell on it for the Tigers and kept the ball in T.R. Miller's possession.
Instead the Tigers' lead went to 27-15 after Raines hit the PAT with 3:49 left.
Just when those on the T.R. Miller side took a sigh of relief, W.S. Neal made things interesting. Barksdale broke a couple of tackles, scrambled out of and back into the pocket and completed a 45-yard touchdown strike to a wide open Alexander along the right sideline. Williamson's PAT kick once again made T.R. Miller's advantage a one-possession lead of
27-22 with 2:45 left.
With that much time left to go along with two timeouts, W.S. Neal passed on the opportunity to kick the ball deep and went
See GAME Page 3B
for an onside kick. It failed, as T.R. Miller took over at the Blue Eagles' 48.
As it was, the Blue Eagles did get the ball back and in a hurry, but not the way they wanted. Barton picked up a first down with a 12-yard gain and Jones slashed through the W.S. Neal defense for a 36-yard touchdown run that finally sealed the verdict. Raines' PAT kick made it 34-22 with 2:04 left.
Both T.R. Miller and W.S. Neal will end the regular season this Friday with respective 7 p.m. home games. The Tigers will entertain Jay (Fla.), which fell to 2-6 on the season Friday with a 48-0 loss to Port St. Joe (Fla.) The Blue Eagles draw Southern Choctaw, the top ranked team in Class 2A. Southern Choctaw (9-0) took another step towards an undefeated regular season Friday when it ambushed Washington County 53-19.
At W.S. Neal
T.R. Miller 7 7 6 14 – 34
W.S. Neal 0 3 6 13 – 22
T.R. MILLER- J. Gomez 4 yard run (Raines kick)
W.S. NEAL- Williamson 27 yard field goal
T.R. MILLER- Jones 12 yard run (Raines kick)
T.R. MILLER- Barton 1 yard run (kick failed)
W.S. NEAL- Bailey 8 yard pass from Barksdale (kick failed)
W.S. NEAL- Alexander 4 yard pass from Barksdale (pass failed)
T.R. MILLER- J. Gomez 1 yard run (Raines kick)
W.S. NEAL- Alexander 45 yard pass from Barksdale (Williamson kick)
T.R. MILLER- Jones 36 yard run (Raines kick)
First downs: T.R. Miller 15, W.S. Neal 17
Third down conversions: T.R. Miller 3-7, W.S. Neal 2-7
Fourth down conversions: T.R. Miller 1-2, W.S. Neal 0-1
Total yards: T.R. Miller 305 (208 rushing, 97 passing), W.S. Neal 377 (167 rushing, 210 passing)
Individual rushing: T.R. Miller- Barton 12-103 1TD, Jones 10-66 2TD, J. Gomez 7-37 2TD, Puryear 4-8, Cauley 4-(-3), Harris 1-(-3); W.S. Neal- Barksdale 11-63, Bailey 12-47, M. Daniel 7-45, Roh. Travis 2-10, Howard 1-2
Individual passing: T.R. Miller- Cauley 4-11-97; W.S. Neal- Barksdale 14-23-210 3TD
Individual receiving: T.R. Miller- Riggs 3-78, Martin 1-19; W.S. Neal- Howard 4-77, Alexander 4-69 2TD, Bailey 3-34 1TD, Floyd 2-25, Roh. Travis 1-5
Individual punting: T.R. Miller- Raines 3-116, 38.7 avg., W.S. Neal- Danley 3-67, 22.3 avg.
Penalties: T.R. Miller- 7-53, W.S. Neal- 9-51